BMCR 2009.03.50

Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society. Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History

, Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society. Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008. 320. ISBN 9780801035494. $32.99 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society is a collection of works originally presented at a conference on “Wealth and Poverty in Early Christianity” held in 2005. The first book in the series Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History, it offers a broad collection of papers predominantly discussing early Christian responses to poverty and wealth across the Roman world. Divided into five sections, the volume presents eighteen essays grouped under the titles: “The New Testament Period”; “Egypt in Late Antiquity”; “John Chrysostom, the Cappadocians, and Friends”; “Wealth, Trade, and Profit in Early Byzantium”; and “Patristic Studies for Today”. These sectional groupings provide a useful and cohesive way to absorb the wide ranging research presented in the volume. The approaches taken to the topic of wealth, poverty and early Christianity are diverse and the essays vary in their depth of interpretation. Different perspectives are taken, and new insights offered on familiar texts and authors, such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the homilies of John Chrysostom, as well as on less familiar texts such as extant papyri from Egypt. The volume is a welcome contribution to the field of poverty studies, and will be of interest, and use, to both students and specialists in the areas of poverty, society, and religion in the Roman empire and late antiquity.

Part 1—”The New Testament Period”—presents four essays that consider various Christian texts from the first two centuries of the Common Era. In the first essay, S.J. Friesen discusses early Christian analyses of the causes of poverty, using the Revelation of John, the Letter of Jacob (or James), the Acts of the Apostles, and the Shepherd of Hermas. Providing a framework of Roman imperial economic inequality, Friesen identifies four distinct commentaries in the texts that portray both an exploitative and suppressive system that promotes economic inequality, as well as a system of charity and salvation in which economic inequality played an accepted, even necessary, role. Buell, in the second paper, considers those exhorted to give alms and charity in early Christian communities. Using Didache, 1 Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas, Buell proposes that donors and recipients usually seen as mutually exclusive entities could be read as interchangeable. She suggests that impoverished Christians could both be involved in poverty relief and be recipients of it. Thus, she argues that the binary oppositions of rich/poor, donor/recipient presented in Christian rhetoric should not be interpreted too literally. In the third essay of this section, G.K. Hasselhoff, presents a discussion of the reception of James 2:2-7 and its opposition to a social preference of the rich. Discussing Bede’s commentary on the text and the earlier patristic interpretations available to him, Hasselhoff questions whether the passage’s limited reception can be explained by its radical critique of wealth. Moore offers the final essay and examines the lures of both spiritual and material wealth as allegorized in the Hymn of the Pearl. Through discussion of this text as well as theological commentaries on poverty in a larger eschatological context, he proposes that in gnostic thought poverty was an ignorance, a lack of a vision of God, while wealth was the knowledge of God’s all pervasive love and humanity’s journey to God’s kingdom.

Part 2—”Egypt in Late Antiquity”—deals with different sources from the second through to seventh centuries of the Common Era. Van den Hoek discusses poverty and wealth in the Quis dives Salvetur? of Clement of Alexandria. She argues that in Clement’s exegesis of Mark 10:17-31 material wealth was neither a positive nor a negative asset, the liquidation of one’s assets was an allegorical reference to one’s desire for, and attachment to, money, while the sharing of one’s wealth was an important social duty. This interpretation, she proposes, was a landmark in reconciling the wealthy with the Christian community. Brakke’s essay considers the semi-eremitical monks of Northern Egypt in the fourth century, and Evagrius’s presentation of the values and anxieties that concerned their attainment and use of money and charity, as well as the constant threat of the demon Love of Money. He points out that for Evagrius economic sufficiency, which still enabled charity, rather than economic security, was the eremitic aim. Such sufficiency encouraged an economic vulnerability with fostered generosity, faith and dependence in God. Serfass’s essay examines extant papyri and what they reveal about the assistance provided to the needy by Christian communities in Egypt. He discusses papyrological evidence that shows that these communities operated a well organised program that included donations to churches, and by churches, of food, wine and clothing, as well as the activities of various charitable institutions and individuals. These provided, Serfass argues, a responsive system of charity and support in small cities and villages in late antique Egypt. In the final paper dealing with Egypt, Susan Holman considers the seventh-century text Miracles of Saints Cyrus and John by Sophronius of Jerusalem, and proposes that four story-sets rhetorically connect rich and poor within the text. Providing a historical, narrative, theological and social context for the work and its subject, Holman suggests that the text moves way from earlier Christian works through its representation of rich and poor and its focus on humility and equality in healing, revealing in its narrative monastic ideals on humility and social justice.

Four of the five essays in Part 3—”John Chrysostom, the Cappadocians, and Friends”—are concerned with the homilies and society of John Chrysostom. The first essay, by Rudolf Brändle, presents a Chrysostom actively engaged in a fight against poverty. Brändle draws upon his earlier work on Chrysostom, and considers Chrysostom’s argumentation of Matt 25:31-46 as part of the preacher’s fight against poverty.1 He further extends his discussion to argue that Matt 25:31-46 can be seen to be of central importance to Chrysostom’s theology and practices. In the second essay Wendy Mayer considers voluntary and economic poverty in Chrysostom’s time. Mayer demonstrates that voluntary poverty was a relative concept that required a personal detachment from, and appropriate use of, wealth. She argues that, in contrast to economic poverty, voluntary poverty conformed to social ideals, and thus became a more attractive recipient of care and benefaction in late antique society. Further she proposes that these differing attitudes towards poverty be considered within our understanding of the shifting role of wealth and poverty in late antique society. Cardman investigates Chrysostom’s homilies on Lazarus and the rich man through the lens of the theatre, building upon Leyerle’s work in this area.2 She considers John Chrysostom’s rhetorical staging of wealth and poverty by reading the homilies as play scenarios. Cardman argues that ambiguities in the preacher’s theatre of wealth and poverty serve to diminish his effectiveness in changing his audience’s response to the poor. Makris Walsh’s essay also deals with the homilies of John Chrysostom. In it Makris Walsh focuses on the preacher’s concern with widows, arguing for their important role in the pastoral activities and theology of Chrysostom’s church in Antioch. She proposes that the preacher’s concern for widows, both wealthy and impoverished, was soteriological, practical and apologetic. In the final essay of this section, D.J. Constantelos focuses on the transition from Hellenic to Christian philanthropy. He presents a discussion of the Hellenic and early Christian backgrounds of philanthropy and proposes that Christianity extended the traditional form of philanthropy both to include individuals from a diversity of backgrounds, and to provide a wide variety of social services.

Part 4—”Wealth, Trade, and Profit in Early Byzantium”—begins with Siecienski’s essay questioning the seeming disparity between the wealth of church adornment and architecture and the church’s rhetoric towards the wealthy. His discussion demonstrates that the splendor of the liturgy could be justified as a reflection of spiritual truths, making it easier for believers to see true beauty and to be transported to the celestial realm. Daniel Caner turns to voluntary poverty in his paper on early Byzantine monasticism and discusses the practice and obligations of monastic stewardship. Considering sources from the fourth to sixth centuries, including Cyril of Scythopolis, Basil of Caesarea and Barsanuphius of Gaza, Caner presents an in-depth discussion of stewardship, charity and surplus that demonstrates how a flexible notion of a “blessing” allowed even very small quantities of surplus, such as leftovers, to be distributed as charity. In the third essay in this section, A. Laiou considers trade, profit, and the merchant, from the fourth to eleventh centuries, in terms of Christian values and reality. She proposes that patristic teachings sought non-economic behaviour, and that hagiographies reflected this ideal with a focus on charity and the miraculous economy. She further argues that while patristic sources present negative views of trade, profit and the merchant, hagiography presents merchants, their profession, and the marketplace as legitimate and accepted, reflecting their position within Byzantine society.

The first essay in Part 5, “Patristic Studies for Today”, by Timothy Patitsas attempts to bridge the gap between patristic beliefs and practices and those of the modern world. He presents a brief discussion of Basil of Caesarea’s philanthropic program, modern poverty-relief efforts, micro-lending and the economic theory of Jane Jacobs, and proposes that Basil’s program could have relevance for poverty relief in the modern world. The second paper by B. Matz outlines a research project being undertaken by the Centre for Catholic Social Thought, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, that deals with the past and future use of patristic teachings on social ethics in Catholic Social Teaching.

Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society provides a valuable contribution to the study of poverty in early Christianity and late antiquity. Several essays offer important insights into the rhetoric of poverty, and the relative nature of poverty in early Christian texts and practices. Papers such as those by Friesen, Buell, Brakke, Serfass, Mayer, Cardman and Caner, are particularly notable for providing critical and insightful readings of the antique material in their treatments of poverty and wealth in early Christian communities. Readers should note that a Christian lens is applied in some of the papers, as is the question of the relevance of early Christian and patristic texts to the modern world. Of editorial note, papers such as Laiou’s essay with its focus on merchants and Matz’s paper on Catholic Social Teaching, seem somewhat misplaced within the overall theme of the volume.

Table of Contents Foreword—Archbishop Demetrios Trakatellis 7
Preface—Susan R. Holman 9
Part One The New Testament Period
1. Injustice or God’s Will? Early Christian Explanations of Poverty—Steven J. Friesen 17
2. “Be not one who stretches out hands to receive but shuts them when it comes to giving”: Envisioning Christian Charity When Both Donors and Recipients Are Poor—Denise Kimber Buell 37
3. James 2:2-7 in Early Christian Thought—Görge K. Hasselhoff 48
4. Wealth, Poverty, and the Value of the Person. Some Notes on the Hymn of the Pearl and Its Early Christian Context—Edward Moore 56
Part 2 Egypt in Late Antiquity
5. Widening the Eye of the Needle: Wealth and Poverty in the Works of Clement of Alexandria—Annewies van den Hoek 67
6. Care for the Poor, Fear of Poverty, and Love of Money: Evagrius Ponticus on the Monk’s Economic Vulnerability— David Brakke 76
7. Wine for Widows: Papyrological Evidence for Christian Charity in Late Antique Egypt—Adam Serfass 88
8. Rich and Poor in Sophronius of Jerusalem’s Miracles of Saints Cyrus and John —Susan R. Holman 103
Part 3 John Chrysostom, The Cappadocians, and Friends
9. This Sweetest Passage: Matthew 25:31-46 and Assistance to the Poor in the Homilies of John Chrysostom—Rudolf Brändle 127
10. Poverty and Generosity toward the Poor in the Time of John Chrysostom—Wendy Mayer 140
11. Poverty and Wealth as Theater: John Chrysostom’s Homilies on Lazarus and the Rich Man—Francine Cardman 159
12. Wealthy and Impoverished Widows in the Writings of St. John Chrysostom—Efthalia Makris Walsh 176
13. The Hellenic Background and Nature of Patristic Philanthropy in the Early Byzantine Era—Demetrios J. Constantelos 187
Part 4 Wealth, Trade, and Profit in Early Byzantium
14. Gilding the Lily: A Patristic Defense of Liturgical Splendor—A. Edward Siecienski 211
15. Wealth, Stewardship, and Charitable “Blessings” in Early Byzantine Monasticism—Daniel Caner 221
16. Trade, Profit, and Salvation in the Late Patristic and the Byzantine Period—Angeliki E. Laiou 243
Part 5 Patristic Studies for Today
17. St Basil’s Philanthropic Program and Modern Microlending Strategies for Economic Self-Actualization—Timothy Patitsas 267
18. The Use of Patristic Socioethical Texts in Catholic Social Thought—Brian Matz 287


1. R. Brändle, Matt. 25:31-46 im Werk des Johannes Chrysostomos, Beiträge zur Geschichte der biblischen Exegese 22 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck) 1979.

2. B. Leyerle, Theatrical Shows and Ascetic Lives: John Chrysostom’s Attack on Spiritual Marriage (Berkeley: University of California Press) 2001.